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Office for iPad vs. iWork: The battle for tablet productivity

Correction, 3/31/2014:  Office Mobile is offered for free and includes document creation via Word and Excel. However, the app can only view and edit existing PowerPoint documents, not create them, without an Office 365 subscription. PCWorld regrets the error.

Once Office for iPad was announced, I couldn’t wait to stage a bare-knuckled battle with iWork, the productivity suite that’s held down the fort on iPad for four years. I pitted Apple’s Pages, Numbers, and Keynote against Microsoft’s Word, Excel, and PowerPoint apps, respectively, to determine which better provided all the tools one would need in a typical work environment.

For each of the comparisons, I first evaluated each app on its own merits. Then, because Microsoft Office is the de-facto standard for most workplaces, I saved an iWork file in its equivalent Microsoft Office format, opened and edited it in Office for iPad, then sent it back to iWork to see how well file fidelity would be maintained during collaboration.

Word vs. Pages

I started by creating a text document in Pages. The app offers all the tools you need for creating and editing content on an iPad, but you have to do some hunting to find them. Basic functions like tab, text justification, and font type/size; and formatting such as bold, italic, and underline, are all available in plain sight above the virtual keyboard.

More advanced features, though, are accessed via a row of icons at the upper-right of the display. Tapping the paintbrush icon opens formatting options such as headings, strikethrough, numbered or bulleted lists, and line spacing. The + icon lets you add elements like images, tables, charts, and shapes. And Pages has a small wrench icon that provides access to general document settings and enables you to turn on things like change tracking.

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Basic formatting options sit atop the Pages keyboard.

Pages includes a variety of pre-formatted templates for different types of documents like flyers, newsletters, invoices, and more. However, I chose a blank document. I wrote some text, turned on change tracking, made some small edits, and added comments. When I tried to share a link to the Pages document through iCloud, however, Pages informed me that I can’t share a document while change tracking is enabled. Instead, I sent a copy of the file—saved in Word DOC format—as an email attachment, and opened it in the Word for iPad app.

The Word app looks and feels almost exactly like Word 2013 on a desktop, with menu tabs for Home, Insert, Layout, Review, and View across the top. I prefer the layout in Word, because both simple and advanced formatting options can be quickly accessed from the ribbon rather than requiring you to access a sub-menu.

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Pages wouldn’t allow sharing of a document while change tracking was enabled.

When I opened the Word DOC I created in Pages, things looked wonky. The image I had placed on the far right was in the middle of the text, and the text was a bit jumbled. It seems Word was at fault, though, because that was only true in the initial Read Mode. Once I enabled editing, everything looked as it should, including the revisions and comments.

I made some additional revisions to the file and added a comment. I also added a new photo (rotated at an odd angle) and a table, and I changed the font in one section to Calibri. I saved it and opened it again in Pages.

For the most part, everything looked OK. However, I received a pop-up alert notifying me that Pages can’t render Calibri, so it substituted an equivalent font. Also, change tracking for Pages works only in body text, so any other changes made in Word for iPad were automatically accepted as final.

The skewed image showed up exactly as I placed it. I could move or resize it, but Pages doesn’t provide a method for rotating an image, so I couldn’t change the angle.

As an experiment, I also tried opening in Pages the “Northwind Business Plan” document that Microsoft created to demo Word for iPad. It contained a variety of elements and more advanced formatting features, and I wanted to see how Pages worked with a Word doc like that.

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Pages jumbled the chart in this Word doc.

As I scrolled through the document, I encountered a fidelity issue on page 4. There was a pie chart with a caption that appeared above a bar chart in Word for iPad and in Word 2013 on the desktop. However, Pages garbled the formatting and the pie chart, and the caption ended up somehow intertwined with the text that should be next to it.

Verdict: Both apps are more than capable of basic document creation and editing. Microsoft wins overall, because many of the formatting options are easier to access, and Word for iPad has a number of features that make it easier to select text and work with images on a touchscreen display. Pages offers more diverse template options, but there are a variety of fidelity issues when working with Microsoft Word files.

Excel vs. Numbers

Like Pages, Numbers offers a variety of formatted templates. You can create schedules, recipes, travel or party plans, and many other spreadsheets with just a tap. Again, I chose to start with blank table.

The conventions in Numbers are more or less identical to those in Pages. More advanced options, like formatting the colors and style of the table or changing the cell formatting, are accessed through the paintbrush icon at the upper right. The plus sign icon lets you insert images, tables, charts and graphs, text boxes, or shapes, and the wrench icon lets you search, print, or configure the general settings.

Double-tapping a cell opens the virtual keyboard. It defaults to a calculator-style number pad, including buttons to change the cell formatting to currency or a percentage. Next to the text bar are buttons to change to alternate keyboards for date and time, pure text, or more advanced formulas.

I typed the days of the week across the top as headers and then entered about five days’ worth of data in the columns underneath. To find the total for each day, I double-tapped the cell at the bottom of each column, then tapped the formula button, followed by functions, and selected SUM from the list of options. I then selected the column of data for the given day. Easy!

Excel for iPad also provides a number of template options when starting a new spreadsheet. It makes better use of the screen real estate than Numbers, filling the display with a grid when you create a new spreadsheet. Like Word for iPad, Excel for iPad makes it much easier to enter text or formulas and access various features and functions. There’s a text-entry field at the top of the spreadsheet, and above that is the familiar ribbon bar that gives you instant access to common features.

When you first tap the text-entry field, a basic QWERTY keyboard appears. At the upper right, though, is a button labeled “123” that triggers a keyboard Microsoft developed specifically for Excel for iPad. The = button—which is the key to entering Excel formulas and functions—is prominently featured, and tapping it brings up the list of available functions. Microsoft also included a tab button to move between cells, and arrow keys that let you navigate around the spreadsheet.

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The Excel app includes a custom keyboard for data entry.

I sent a simple spreadsheet between Numbers and Excel for iPad with no issues. I inserted a pie chart in Numbers, and then added another in Excel for iPad, and everything worked as expected.

Things didn’t work so well, however, when I used the “Northwind” file from Microsoft to find out how Numbers manages more advanced capabilities and file fidelity.

Immediately upon opening the Northwind Expenses file in Numbers, I received a pop-up alert warning me that sparklines are not supported in Numbers and would not be displayed.

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Excel’s sparklines were unreadable by Numbers.

That was really just the beginning of the issues with Numbers, though. In addition to removing the sparklines, Numbers also took out all the vibrant colors that highlight specific cells or make it easier to differentiate one line of data from the next, leaving the whole spreadsheet monochrome. There were also some annoying formatting issues that result in images overlapping text.

By contrast, the “Northwind” file retained all its formatting and features in Excel for iPad.

Verdict : If you need to create, edit, or even just view an Excel spreadsheet on an iPad, Excel for iPad is the easy winner. There are simply too many issues with formatting and file fidelity with Numbers, and Microsoft has done a superb job at creating a touch-friendly Excel experience.

How does PowerPoint stack up to the much-loved Keynote? Read on for the gory details.  

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